Monday, March 10, 2014

Jenkins: "THE BATTLE OF PEACH TREE CREEK: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864"

[The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864 by Robert D. Jenkins, Sr. (Mercer University Press, 2014). Cloth, 11 maps, photos, illustrations, footnotes, casualty roster, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:469/600. ISBN:978-0-88146-396-5 $35]

Some excellent general treatments small and large (most particularly, Albert Castel's unsurpassed Decision in the West) and a fine map study exist in book form for the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, but it bears repeating just how few first-class histories of the individual battles fought along the road from North Georgia to Atlanta and around the city itself have been produced. Even with its flaws, Robert Jenkins's The Battle of Peach Tree Creek: Hood's First Sortie, July 20, 1864* easily provides the best modern interpretation and most complete description of the battle to date.

Jenkins's study is an extraordinarily detailed military microhistory of the Battle of Peachtree Creek, its bibliography indicative of the type and amount of primary and secondary source research necessary for such a creation. The scale at which the action unfolds runs the entire gamut from army level command all the way down to individual companies on the firing line. In common with most battle books of this type, the main text consists of a narrative thread accompanied throughout by well selected excerpts and extensive block quotes from the official documents, letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs written by participants.

One cannot help but agree with the author that the Confederate Army of Tennessee commander, General John Bell Hood, devised a sound battle plan with reasonable expectations for success. While a single corps and the Confederate cavalry occupied the attention of the bulk of Sherman's massive army group off to the east, two corps (Stewart's and Hardee's) would exploit a carelessly created two mile wide gap in the Union center, hitting George Thomas's Army of the Cumberland in front and flank as the federals were in the process of crossing Peachtree Creek. Hardee's Corps, at four divisions the strongest of the two Confederate assault columns, would begin the attack by turning and crushing the vulnerable Union left (John Newton's division of O.O. Howard's IV Corps) while the rest of the army would advance en echelon from right to left, driving the federals back into rugged creek bottoms where they might be broken up in detail.

In many ways, Peachtree Creek was a classic example of an Army of Tennessee battle, a tactical offensive characterized by startling initial success (often against equal or superior enemy numbers at the point of attack) rendered unexploitable due to lack of reserves in key places and the difficulties rough western terrain imposed on command, communications, and artillery support. Like many observers and later historians, Jenkins finds great fault with William J. Hardee. With three attacking divisions and one in reserve, the Georgian was responsible for both defeating the Union left and initiating the echelon attack. The timing of the operation was disrupted from the beginning, with the center of Hardee's column (W.H.T. Walker's Division) instead of the planned right striking the Union defenses first. It only got worse from there. The far right division, William Bate's, got swallowed up and misdirected in horrendous natural terrain, while George Maney's division on the left of Hardee's line only weakly attacked. One might argue that Peachtree Creek was John Newton's best day of work in an otherwise pedestrian Civil War career, with his single small division defeating an entire enemy corps. Tactical salients often proved to be weak positions in Civil War battle lines, but Newton's elevated position jutted out so far to the south that it completely disrupted Hardee's advance and the hasty Union entrenchments thrown up at its tip perhaps intimidated Hardee from fulfilling his attack orders (although the author found no evidence that Hardee ever passed down to his division commanders Hood's wishes for an all out attack). Hardee could have no excuse for such a timid performance, and his subsequent protestations that Hood deprived him of his reserve division at a decisive moment in the battle ring hollow in the face of the evidence presented in the book.

The fighting to the west could not have been more different in character. Most of Stewart's corps attacked with gusto. Two divisions, those of W.W. Loring and Edward Walthall, attacked aggressively, seriously pressuring Joe Hooker's XX Corps along Collier's Ridge before being repulsed. Winfield Scott Featherston's small brigade alone suffered more casualties than Hardee's entire corps. On the Confederate far left, the Union XIV Corps blocked the final advance of the day by Samuel French's division. Jenkins does a fine job of articulating where and how these attacks progressed and why they ultimately failed. In addition to Stewart possessing a critical lack of reserves due to having a brigade absent on picket duty from each attacking division, the topography was a limiting factor in Confederate success. Well coordinated echelon attacks require that adjacent commands be visible to each other and intervals between neighboring units close enough for flank coverage. Heavily wooded and cut by numerous gullies, streams, and ridges, the landscape south of Peachtree Creek isolated the attacking Confederate brigades from friendly view and support. The result was piecemeal, albeit powerful, attacks. Some brigades, like Featherston's and Edward O'Neal's, were victims of their own success in that their impressively deep penetrations of Union lines only resulted in their being eventually surrounded on three sides and thrown back with heavy loss. Unlike Hardee's attack, the odds were heavily stacked against Stewart's assault, with brigades ending up attacking divisions in several cases.

While Jenkins's account of the battle is presented in admirable depth and his interpretations convincingly supported by the source evidence, the manuscript is marred by flaws large and small. Readers will quickly discover that the book should not have been published in its current state. Right off the bat, one finds that the captions to the illustrations are incorrectly formatted (one even has a placeholder note in all-caps like one might find in a galley proof rather than a finished product). Continuing from there, typographical errors abound in the main text and footnotes.  While the book's organization generally fosters a good understanding of the flow of action, the author's decision to incorporate a vast amount of specialized research on a single regiment, the 31st Mississippi, into the main narrative was arguably inadvisable.  Chapters are frequently peppered with subsections comprising tactical vignettes at the regimental and brigade levels, but to have such a huge portion of an already thick book's middle occupied with a company by company breakdown of the 31st's battle experience struck this reader as jarringly out of place.  It's understandable that the author, who has a special interest in this particular regiment, would want to present his findings; however, instead of interrupting the narrative at a key moment with the presentation of a huge volume of uniquely narrow interest material, the book might have been better served by collecting this content in an appendix.

The set of maps included are quite good in terms of showing the movements and relative positions of the brigades and regiments of each side. On the downside, the underlying terrain features do not register elevation changes and are poorly represented, with those that are depicted exhibiting an indistinct, ghosted appearance making them difficult to see. Not being able to clearly visualize the relationship between the fighting units and the fields, forests, ravines and ridges that had such a profound effect on where and how the battle was fought is unfortunate, though the text's often vivid discussions of the terrain go at least some way toward offsetting this deficiency. In terms of supplementary features, full orders of battle was left out, but a Union and Confederate casualty roster was compiled, a huge appendix almost 85 pages in length.

Although the unpolished nature of the finished manuscript is a significant source of discontent, the strengths of The Battle of Peach Tree Creek, the undeniable leap forward it represents in our blow-by-blow knowledge and understanding of the July 20 fighting north of Atlanta, make it worthy of recommendation. No library shelf of 1864 Atlanta Campaign titles should be without it.



* - It's a minor matter, but for those readers expecting "Peachtree" rather than "Peach Tree" Creek, Jenkins claims that the latter is correct for the time of the battle.


More CWBA reviews of MUP titles:
* Going Back the Way They Came: The Phillips Georgia Legion Cavalry Battalion
* I Will Give Them One More Shot: Ramsey's First Regiment Georgia Volunteers
* The Battle of Resaca: Atlanta Campaign, 1864
* Volunteers' Camp and Field Book
* Griswoldville
* Civil War Macon: The History of a Confederate City

6 comments:

  1. John FoskettMarch 11, 2014

    Good, thorough review, Drew. I will say that it's consistent with my preliminary skim, which also reveals the occasional unfinished sentence and the sporadic erroneous footnote. This author would have done well to recognize the value of a good editor, not to mention a competent proofreader. If you're Earl Hess or Eric Wittenberg, the editor is probably a luxury. If you're a first-timer, it's essential. Here's (again) hoping that Hess or Ecelbarger tackle Ezra Church and/or Jonesboro.

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    1. If I had the ability to handpick an author for a battle book of my choice, I would select Hess or Ecelbarger, too. Patchan would be up there if I could pry him away from the 1864 Valley campaigns.

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  2. Thanks for the review, Drew. I am looking forward to reading this in its final form, as I saw it in manuscript.

    Not sure this is the precise forum for this, but I wanted to reflect for a moment on John's observation and have a few minutes, so . . .

    There are many authors who are wonderful writers, and not so good at researching or organizing or seeing the forest for the trees. And there are others who are marvelous researchers and organizers who can't write to save their lives (or their writing is not quite on par with their research abilities). Very few (VERY FEW) are effective on both sides of the fence. All of you know we have published scores of authors over the years. I can count on both hands (and still have a couple fingers left over) the authors who can "do it all." And even those who can still need a guiding hand. That surprises many people.

    I discovered this to my undying surprise many years ago when a well-known historian in the Civil War community submitted a manuscript to us. It was so poorly written I nearly thought it was a joke. After working with him for a time, I realized he had enjoyed (pick your favorite, or mix and match) outstanding developmental editors, proofers, research editors, ghostwriters, etc. with the former university press that made him a name in our CW circle. The final product barely resembled the initial manuscript. I won't tell you whether we ended up publishing his book or not.

    There are a few titles we have published over the years (both with Savas Publishing and Savas Beatie) where the research was stellar, but the writing so bad we had to rewrite EVERYTHING. We tell the authors up front so they know. Some agree, some say no way. That's fine, and their choice. It is also our choice as publisher.

    In all of my years as a publisher, I have published precisely ONE author who did not need a developmental editor or even a proofreader (although we used one of each). I do this for a living, and yet need my own work developed and edited when I publish with other houses. It is the nature of the beast. Researching and organizing your work is hard. Using years of your labor and writing a coherent manuscript is harder still. Doing it all and remaining objective about what you have produced is nearly impossible. This is where the role of an unbiased publisher comes in, and with receptive authors can create a wonderful partnership.

    When authors refuse to allow editing, or tell me up front how wonderful their work is and that it is essentially "untouchable," I tell them to look elsewhere.

    Thankfully, we in the CW community are blessed with some wonderful authors, researchers, and publishers and are able to enjoy our passion on a host of levels. We also have a vibrant blogging community to learn about titles and their respective merit, and Drew's site is my personal favorite.

    --tps

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    1. John FoskettMarch 13, 2014

      I would echo Ted's points. I merely used Earl and Eric as examples who might be at the outer edge because they've been through the drill enough and are good enough at writing that they (I would assume) have less need for the machete-wielding editor. This book represents a salutary level of exhaustive research and analysis but it suffers for a number of reasons - certainly the typos, sentence structure, and occasional footnote errors but also for a reason Drew highlights - the author's waffling between doing a study of the overall July 20 battle and doing a unit history. I'll wager that a good editor would have trimmed this down and fixed it up so that the commendations aren't accompanied by "but" or "despite". Ted's approach is commendable. If an author thinks that he/she knows better (especially a first-timer) than a publisher who has been through this drill innumerable times, it's best for the publisher to stay out of the marriage. After all, the publisher's name goes on the cover/spine, as well.

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    2. There's the framework and content of a truly excellent book here and it's a real shame that it was released in a form that precludes it from becoming a classic. Fixing some of the problems for the 2nd printing is no comfort to those that made it possible by buying up all the 1st ed.-1st printings. Book publishing is becoming too disturbingly close to software publishing.

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  3. Chris EvansMarch 13, 2014

    Thanks for the excellent review.

    Disappointing that the book wasn't polished a bit better. That does take away from the overall effect of the book.

    Chris

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